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Can rakes save forests? Yes, as long as you have a drip torch in the other hand

A drip torch and a McCleod, two tools that can be used together to reduce the fuels on the forest floor. (Photo: Lenya Quinn-Davidson)

The humble rake has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, and its role as a forest management tool ridiculed and scorned. However, most fire professionals believe rakes are a necessary part of saving California's forests.

Those who are familiar with fire are undoubtedly familiar with the McLeod, which is a standard firefighting tool and … it is essentially a rake (one side is a rake with coarse tines and the other side has a flat sharpened hoe). The McLeod was created in 1905 by a U.S. Forest Service ranger who wanted a single tool that could rake fire lines (with the teeth) and cut branches and roots (with the sharpened hoe edge). The McCleod is used to scrape fuels off of a fire line, preventing fire spread. The use of hand tools like the McLeod continues to be one of the standard ways that wildfires are stopped (although often aided by the rake's bigger and more powerful cousin: the bulldozer).

While the McLeod is a fire-fighting tool, it is also an essential fire-managing tool. When conducting controlled burns (i.e., purposeful fire), the fire is contained within desired areas by diligent raking with McLeods and other hand tools. These tools are necessary for conducting controlled burns.

While it isn't feasible to reduce fire risk by raking the forest with hand tools, if you hold a drip torch in the other hand, you could get the work done.

A drip torch consists of a canister for holding fuel that comes out of a spout (with a loop to prevent fire from entering the fuel canister) and a wick from which flaming fuel is dropped to the ground when the wick is ignited. The drip torch is the most common tool for lighting prescribed burns, which can be used to remove excess fuel buildup in the forest.

In a forest setting, these two tools — the rake and the torch — must be used together. Without a rake, the fire is not easily contained. And without a drip torch, the fuel that was raked cannot burn. Of course, prescribed burns rely on a number of other pre-specified factors (the prescription), including wind, temperature and humidity.

Using fire in a controlled manner drastically reduces the impacts of wildfire in a forest. Typically flames are kept low and most or all of the trees survive the fire, while much of the dead material on the forest floor (the “fuel”) is consumed. This reduces the risk of the forest burning at high severity in the future, thereby protecting nearby homes and towns. It also reintroduces fire as an important ecosystem process, which improves the health and biodiversity of forests and maintains the ecosystem services they provide, including wildlife habitat, water filtration and carbon sequestration.

Participants at a University of California Cooperative Extension with their hand tools (including shovels, Pulaskis, and McCleods) are getting ready to cut fire line so that a prescribed fire will not escape containment. (Photo: Ames Gilbert)

Use of a rake and a drip torch together could make a great difference for reducing the impacts of wildfire in California and the West. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that during 2017, only half a million acres were treated with prescribed fire in the West, while 7.4 million acres (almost 15 times more) burned in wildfires. In the Southeastern U.S., where there is a long-standing tradition of prescribed burning, only 2 million acres burned in wildfires while over 5.5 million were burned using prescribed fire.

This was not always the case. Use of prescribed fire, or ‘light burning,' was once common in California until it was outlawed by federal and state policy in 1924. Although the merits of expanding its use are widely known and appreciated, it has been very difficult to do because of concerns about air quality, liability and lack of skilled burners. One of the biggest constraints is that we have very few people who have experience with ‘good fire' and very few qualified people who know how to safely burn.

Landowners at a UCCE prescribed fire training are 'holding' the fire on the left side of the fire line that was cut using rakes and other hand tools. The landowner on the far left is firing the burn unit with a drip torch. (Photo: Ames Gilbert)

As foresters and educators for the University of California Cooperative Extension, we are working to expand the use of prescribed fire on private forest and grasslands in California. Central to our efforts are educational events that give people an opportunity to experience prescribed fire first-hand. In the last two years, we have hosted workshops throughout northern California, and many of our workshops have included a live-fire component where landowners and other community members can try their hand at prescribed burning, under the direction and guidance of more experienced burners.

Our efforts in California are inspired by approaches in other parts of the country, including “Learn and Burn” events in the Southeast, prescribed burn associations in the Great Plains, and prescribed fire training exchanges (TREXs), an innovative training model developed by The Nature Conservancy's Fire Learning Network. All of these efforts have a focus on reconnecting people with fire, and they give participants the skills and experience needed to put fire back in the management toolbox.

A prescribed fire burns up to the fire line (installed with rakes and other tools) and stops. The fire is consuming fuel on the forest floor and leaving behind a a healthier and more fire safe forest. (Photo: Lenya Quinn-Davidson)

We hope that by empowering people to pick up the drip torch (and the rake) on their own properties, we can help them reduce the risk of wildfire and improve the health of their forest and range lands. There is no time to waste.

Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 at 9:31 AM

JOB ANNOUNCEMENT :: Plant Ecologist (IPM Program Manager)

Resource Professionals: An exciting opportunity is now open today thru December 27, 2018 in USAJOBS for the Pacific West Region Plant Ecologist/IPM Program Manager GS-0408-12 FT-Permanent position.  Incumbent will help shape PWR Vegetation...

Posted on Monday, December 10, 2018 at 11:39 AM

Costs to manage invasive aquatic weeds in the Delta

Harvesting water hyacinth

Attached is a presentation on the economics of controlling invasive aquatic weeds in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This was presented by Karen Jetter at the Delta Region Areawide Aquatic Weeds Program (DRAAWP) stakeholders meeting in October 2018.

Harvesting water hyacinth
Harvesting water hyacinth

Harvesting water hyacinth

Posted on Thursday, December 6, 2018 at 3:22 PM
  • Author: Karen Jetter
  • Author: Kjersti Nes
  • Posted by: Guy B Kyser

JOB ANNOUNCEMENT :: Weed Ecology and Management for Specialty Crop Systems Professor

https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/jobs/12712 Section of Horticulture - Geneva, Cornell University Position ID: Cornell-Section of Horticulture - Geneva-AAP [#12712, WDR-00017043] Position Title:  Weed Ecology and Management for...

Posted on Wednesday, December 5, 2018 at 9:22 AM

Why mud daubers are on spider patrol

UC Cooperative Extension advisors are on the front line and get the most interesting questions from our community. Someone brought some wasps into our office, and was worried they were invading her home, and wondered how to get rid of them. They were identified by the UC Davis Entomology Museum as black and yellow solitary mud dauber wasps, which are natural predators of spiders, and hence beneficial! Before you reach for that can of insecticide or heaven forbid, a blow torch to control spiders, talk to a UCCE advisor or Master Gardener in your county and read this blog for more information on managing them.

Yellow and black mud dauber wasps are predators of spiders but harmless to people. Adults are about 1-inch in length with true wasp waists!

Here's all you need to know about mud daubers and spider control

That mud you track into your house is nothing compared to what mud daubers can do — and what they do to spiders. Female mud daubers, or wasps, build mud nests for their young — and provision them with spiders.

Where are the nests and what do they look like?  

Female mud daubers, the architects, build those characteristic rectangular mud nests in protected areas of our homes, shops and garages, such as along eaves, walls or ceilings. Mud daubers are black and yellow solitary wasps (Sceliphron caementarium) that hunt spiders for their young. Another wasp, the blue mud wasp, reuses the black and yellow mud dauber wasp nests and primarily preys on black widow spiders.

Mud dauber wasp nests with holes where adults have exited after completing their immature stages.

Do mud daubers sting or bite? 

Mud daubers do not aggressively protect their nests. Unlike hornets and other social wasps, they are generally docile and rarely sting. 

Are mud daubers dangerous?

No, mud daubers are harmless and actually beneficial. They prey on spiders, including black widows, a favorite prey. They pack each cell with up to 25 to 30 spiders for their young. With about 15 to 20 cells per nest, that's over 500 spiders eaten. This is good news, especially for those of us who fear black widow spiders. True, mud daubers can be a nuisance, as their mud nests look messy, but they are generally peaceful.

How do they make their nests?

Females construct their nests by gathering globs of mud in their mandibles (jaws) from a nearby source of wet dirt. They carry the mud to a protected nest site, where they construct a cell. Then they begin hunting for spiders to provision the cell for their young, and lay a single egg inside. When they capture a spider, they sting it, permanently paralyzing it. This preserves the spider until their larvae are ready to eat it. When the cell is full of spiders, the female mud dauber caps it with more mud and builds another cell next to it. After the egg hatches and the food gone, she pupates. When an adult emerges, it opens the cap, leaving holes behind in the nest for the next cycle.

Mud daubers have a low reproductive rate, with about 15 to 20 eggs per female. Adults are active during the day during spring and summer with multiple generations per year. Queens overwinter in the cells in the larval stage. Adults sip nectar from flowers, where the male mud daubers are often found. Mud dauber wasps have good vision and use landmarks to locate nests and hunt spiders. They prefer protected areas where there are plenty of spiders. Sometimes you might see them going in and out of your house vents, hunting for spiders in your basement or attic.

Mud dauber pupa (right) and cells packed with spiders, showing the importance of these wasps for providing natural spider control.

How do mud daubers avoid being eaten by spiders?

Some are able to land on webs without getting entangled, and pluck the web to simulate an insect in distress. When the spider rushes to capture its prey, it becomes a victim of the wasp's paralyzing sting. The wasp then carries it back to her mud nest.

How do you get rid of mud dauber nests?

Although mud daubers are considered beneficial, you can remove the nests by scraping them off with a paint scraper or a knife into a dust pan, and then tossing them or moving them somewhere else where you don't mind their activity. The best time to remove the nests is in the late evenings when wasps are not active, or during the wintertime when they are dormant.

Do I have to worry about getting stung by a wasp or bit by a spider during nest removal?

No, the spiders are paralyzed and the wasps are not aggressive. Mud daubers can sting, but only if directly handled or if they accidentally snag in your clothing.

What's the best way to get rid of spiders?

Overall, spiders are beneficial because they're predators and feed on pests like flies. Most spiders cannot harm people. Those that might injure people — for example, black widows — generally spend most of their time hidden under furniture or boxes, or in woodpiles, corners or crevices. The spiders that we commonly see out in the open during the day are not aggressive toward people. The brown recluse spider has occasionally been brought into California in household furnishings, and other items, but it does not reside here. Spiders enter houses and other structures through cracks and are also carried inside on plants, firewood and boxes. 

According to the UC IPM Spider Management Guidelines, the best approach for controlling spiders in and around your home is to remove hiding spots for secretive spiders such as black widows, and regularly brush or vacuum webs from windows, corners of rooms, storage areas, basements and other seldom used areas. This is effective because their soft bodies generally cannot survive this process. If you see a dust-covered web indoors, it's no doubt an old web that a spider is no longer using.

Why should one protect mud dauber nests?

Because mud daubers eat spiders, especially the cryptic black widows. In the process of cleaning spiders and webs, be sure to try protect those mud nests, because mud daubers naturally help control spiders in and around your home.

Blue mud wasp adults favor black widow spiders. Photo credit: University of Florida Extension.
Posted on Tuesday, December 4, 2018 at 8:05 PM

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